Unless you are a long-time subscriber to Prog Line, a fantastic YouTube channel that posts full albums by obscure prog bands from times gone by, there’s a very good chance you’ve never heard of thisOneness, the Minnesota band who released one album, Surprize, in 1975. At long last, keyboardist Gregg Inhofer has re-released this album alongside two others that were recorded in 1975 and 1976 but were never released in order to tell The (Untold) Story of thisOneness; so unofficial is this re-release that the word ‘untold’ features in the booklet but not on the card sleeve that attractively houses the three discs in mock-up album sleeves, with newly-created covers for Amalgamated Funk and Sonic Geometry, the unreleased albums. My only complaint about the sleeve is that it crops guitarist Dale Strength’s intriguing fossil and space-themed Surprize cover ever so slightly, which makes it look less balanced compared to the vinyl sleeve.
As a keen fan of all things ’70s, I was quick to nab this one from our pipeline, although I was rather wary to try three CDs from a band that I’d never even heard of before, knowing that, more often than not when it comes to prog, the obscure bands are obscure for a reason. Turns out that I shouldn’t have been worried, however, as thisOneness specialises in a particularly heady brand of jazz fusion to rival that of Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Yes, I know what I said; they really are that good. It’s shocking, then, that it took nearly half a century for albums two and three to see the light of day.
Surprize takes a little while to get going. The brief fusion intro of You Can’t Do That!, so called as it is “composed in 7½/4 time signature – about what your teachers always told you not to do,” segues into the title track, featuring a more familiar 6/8 time, oddly reminiscent of Renaissance’s Trip to the Fair, though with a harder edge. The band frustratingly decide to follow this with two songs that really don’t show what is so special about them; Please Let the Sunshine – irksome because ‘sunshine’ is a noun, I’d have preferred to see ‘Sun Shine’, grammatically speaking – feels like a pop track with the gospel-feel of backing singers. Song for Olivia – named after the late, great Olivia Newton-John, who thisOneness served as the backing group for during this period (yes, I was surprised too!) – is a subdued track with congas featured in the percussion that again fails to showcase the band’s particular talents. Fifteen minutes in, and we’ve barely had any fusion whatsoever.
That all changes with In Out In Out, a fiery ditty featuring breakneck timekeeping by drummer Bernard Pershey. It feels like your standard jazz affair with Robyn Lee providing the melody on the saxophone, harmonising with the falsetto vocals, until near the end of the song where the guitar and bass provide a more distinctively prog timbre.
Over on Side Two of the original album is where the real meat lies with two brilliant longer tracks. Radio Free Amerika is an exceptional prog track, with a dark, dense fusion instrumental bookended by moody prog rock verse sections. Merging Diversions, on the other hand, is straight fusion with notes of rock. This is where the band’s Mahavishnu influence can be most clearly heard. The title track is reprised before we are signed out with Go in Peace. Quite a lop-sided affair, Surprize definitely shows the potential this group had.
CD Two brings us Amalgamated Funk, the first of the unreleased albums, featuring the same line-up minus Robyn Lee’s saxophone, giving the band a more pared-down sound, ideal for the rock-inflected jazz fusion that pervades this record. There are no hummable ‘hits’ like Please Let the Sunshine here, just straight jazz fusion instrumental madness, with a few lyrical sections here and there. I’m particularly fond of the title track which features vocalisations that elevate the instrumental like a particularly manic version of Yes.
What is so brilliant about this music is that you can tell that it has been carefully composed with hints like vocalisations and time signature changes, and yet contains sections that must surely be improvised, like an intricate framework for an otherwise natural piece. This seamless blend of structure and freeform makes for truly exciting progressive jazz fusion that will keep you on the edge of your seat. When I asked Gregg Inhofer how the band achieved this composition style, he admitted that they ‘cheated’ by using two hats with pieces of paper in each, one for the notes of the chromatic scale, and one with various rhythm values based on 32nd notes. I wish this line-up had lasted long enough to use up all the hat combinations!
The last disc contains Sonic Geometry, which featured another personnel change: bassist Douglas Nelson was replaced by Jay Young. According to the detailed liner notes written by Inhofer, Jay had a deep effect on the group’s direction, taking them into deeper funk/swing territory. He was told that he could throw out whatever tunes he didn’t feel comfortable with, and Inhofer seems regretful that most of the rock stuff went with his arrival.
As a result, there is much less vocal work on this album which makes it a lot less exciting. The technical musicianship is still there, and there are even some exhilarating sections too, but with little to make themselves distinctive, the songs mainly tend to converge to your bog-standard jazz fusion sound with little personality. The best song is undoubtedly the first: Opening (& or Closing) Venusian Blinds features both vocals and a speedy final section. This monotonous album lasts over an hour as well, adding to the ennui as each song becomes less different than the last.
Still, this is an absolutely astounding surprize(!) release that I reckon very few were expecting to hear. For not just one shelved album to be present, but two is an absolute treat. Moreover, the band in question are supremely skilled at their instruments, with Pershey in particular providing exquisite rhythms on the drums. The package contains liner notes by Inhofer, as well as stories from each of the surviving band members from their time in the group. Included is a code to access the band’s website which isn’t ready just yet, but will include extras such as a live recording of the band playing Tarkus; I’ve heard it, and the band absolutely nailed it, right down to Aquatarkus.
[You can read Basil’s interview with thisOneness’ Gregg Inhofer HERE.]
CD 1: Surprize
You Can’t Do That!/Surprize (A. Lunar Sunrise, B. Overture) (5:40)
Please Let the Sunshine (5:42)
Song for Olivia (3:21)
In Out In Out (4:10)
Radio Free Amerika (7:20)
Merging Diversions (8:43)
Surprize (Reprise)/Go in Peace (4:00)
Time – 38:51
CD 2: Amalgamated Funk
Amalgamated Funk (6:50)
Booze in F (6:46)
Time – 36:58
CD 3: Sonic Geometry
Opening (& or Closing) Venusian Blinds (9:06)
Sweet Pea (5:43)
Whose Nose (8:04)
The Light (6:56)
Pittsburgh Pie (5:52)
What am I Looking For? (2:34)
For That This Is (5:57)
The Big U (8:34)
Time – 62:00
Total Time – 137:49
Gregg Inhofer – Keyboards, Vocals
Dale Strength – Guitar, Vocals
Bernard Pershey – Drums, Percussion
Douglas Nelson – Bass (discs 1 & 2)
Robyn Lee – Flute, Saxophone, Organ, Synthesiser, Vocals (disc 1)
Jay Young – Bass (disc 3)
Record Label: Oz Records
Catalogue #: OZ55419
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Release Date: 18th December 2022